Benson targets Riga impact after overcoming battle to regain fitness
Robbie Benson reckons that it's about four or five weeks since he jogged past an intensive Dundalk training session and wondered when he would be able to get back to that level.
The Athlone man's plans for 2019 were shattered by a leg break just minutes into the season-opener with Sligo Rovers.
There were hopes that he could return within three months but the wait was extended with a second procedure needed to clear up a problem that was stalling recovery.
He was always certain he would be back in the picture for Europe, yet the lingering doubt in his mind was related to his ability to actually make a constructive impact.
"I was doing some light jogging drills, easy change of direction stuff," said Benson yesterday, speaking in Dublin Airport ahead of his flight to Latvia for the Champions League decider with Riga. "And I was watching lads do 8 v 8 sessions and I was thinking, 'I'm so far away from that'.
"But the more you play and train, the more you get your confidence back."
Head coach Vinny Perth brought Benson off the bench in Tallaght on June 28 and gave him a start away to Derry last Friday week.
As Dundalk struggled to break down the Latvians in the first leg, he turned to the 27-year-old.
He made a visible impact in the midfield department during a 32-minute cameo, aiding ball retention in an attempt to press forward although the hosts still couldn't manage a breakthrough.
Benson actually found that challenge more taxing on his body than 70 minutes in Derry, perhaps indicative of the intensity of European fare.
Tomorrow's showdown is a massive game for the League of Ireland champions and their American owners.
There was a noticeable tension around Oriel last Wednesday arising from the belief that a seeded Dundalk team should be on top against a lower-profile opponent compared to teams they have faced in recent campaigns.
Benson isn't too despondent, suggesting that the initial 90 minutes fell in line with the European norm.
"First legs are tricky, you are feeling each other out," he says. "They were disciplined and it's easy to sit in sometimes on the astroturf. It's hard to be as intricate around the edge of the box, with little one-twos. I think we will be able to do that a little better on their new pitch.
"Aside from last year (Europa League exit to Larnaca), we have been better in the second legs than the first legs."
Riga viewed Dundalk as an attractive option from the seeded options and strengthened their squad before the tie.
"There's nothing to lose (as an underdog). When the expectation levels are high, you do feel pressure" admits Benson,
"People were thinking it's a walk in the park because it's a Latvian team, but it's not like that. We expect to go through if we play to our potential but I think people will see it as a huge major shocking upset if we don't when it's not really the case."
Dundalk's plans met with a late hitch after they travelled to Latvia without star winger Michael Duffy. He was at the airport when he received a call to say that his partner was about to give birth ahead of schedule.
Club officials have made plans for Duffy to travel independently in time for tomorrow's decider.